Login (?): | Contact Us | Join AIEF

Donate Now

Students and Institutions: All applications have been moved to the new AIEF website.

Please go to www.aiefprogram.org to learn more.

Sherman Alexie | John Bennett Herrington | Lionel Bordeaux | Naomi Lang | Wilma Mankiller | Ben Nighthorse Campbell | Ben Reifel

Ben Reifel

The first congressman from the Sioux nation, Ben Reifel was born on the Rosebud Reservation to a Brule Sioux mother and a German-American father. While Ben’s mother encouraged him to study and expand his education, his father felt he was needed at home on the farm. Not until he was sixteen years old did the young man complete the eighth grade. After his parents forbade him from entering high school, Reifel ran away from home, traveling 250 miles to enroll in school. In 1932 he graduated from South Dakota State University with degrees in chemistry and dairy science.

Reifel joined the Army reserves while in college and served during the Second World War. After the war he served as the superintendent for the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. He received a scholarship to Harvard and left to complete his education. He received a master’s degree in public administration and became one of the first Native Americans to earn a Ph.D., also at Harvard. He wrote his dissertation on how to reduce conflict between Native Americans and non-Natives. This subject would become his project when he served in Congress. Working again for the BIA, Reifel became the first Native American to be superintendent of the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1954. The next year he became an area director for the BIA. In 1960, he retired from the BIA and ran for Congress as a Republican. He won on his first try for public office and served in Congress for five terms.

While in office, Reifel pushed for better education on reservations and recommended that reservation and county schools be merged so Native Americans and non-Natives could be educated together. He helped to obtain improvements in Sioux Falls veteran’s hospital and helped to establish the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After retiring from Congress, Reifel became the last Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In 1978 the BIA was restructured and the title of the head of the BIA became Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs. Reifel died of cancer in Sioux Falls at the age of 83.